Told as a day-in-the-life of an under-appreciated assistant to a high-powered film executive, Kitty Green’s The Assistant is a seemingly quiet film with a powerful resonance.
Starring Julia Garner (Ruth from Ozark) as Jane, the film is set over the duration of her work day and dutifully captures the minutiae of office life with an aesthetic quietness (muted colours, long takes and limited dialogue).
Despite this languid surface, The Assistant is a razor-sharp character study that slowly unpicks the mechanisms of a toxic workplace in which abuse, misogyny and exploitation fester in both small and significant ways.
From microaggressions to sexual abuse, the film examines not only the perversion of power at the top but also how this abuse spreads down the organisation through a culture of silence and complicity.
In one scene, a group of colleagues wait in the film executive’s office for a meeting.
One jokingly cautions another: “Never sit on the couch.”
However there is a dark truth to this caution both within the film’s narrative and beyond it.
The ‘casting couch’ has long been a euphemism for aspiring young actors being solicited for sexual favours by predatory film industry heavyweights.
Green’s film has particular resonance in the aftermath of the #metoo movement and the sentencing of real-life film producer and convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein to 23 years imprisonment for two counts of sexual assault.
Twenty of those years are for the sexual abuse of former production assistant Miriam Haley.
Green has said the film executive is not based on any person in particular.
But she did interview people from the Weinstein office and Miramax Studios, as well as women working in agencies outside of the film industry.
During her research, she noticed the recurrence of similar patterns of abusive behaviour in toxic workplaces across a wide range of industries.
The film executive in The Assistant is never seen but he remains strangely omnipresent.
Like a ghost, he surfaces in abusive emails, threatening phone calls and as the subject of whispered exchanges between colleagues.
While set in a similar context, The Assistant has none of the celebrity glamour of Jay Roach’s star-studded Bombshell (2019).
Instead there is a wonderful restraint created by Green’s cinematographer and long-time collaborator Michael Latham.
The banal processes of office life are filmed in long takes and fixed camera angles, occasionally cutting to close-ups of Jane’s often pained expression.
Green’s previous films were both documentaries (Ukraine Is Not A Brothel about the controversial feminist group Femen and the true-crime meta-doco Casting JonBenet) and these influences surface in the observation of Jane as she carries out menial office duties.
We navigate the fluorescent hallways with Jane, listen as her boss verbally abuses her on the phone, and watch as the human resources manager (an exceptionally well-cast Matthew Macfadyen) reminds her of the precariousness of her employment.
While The Assistant is set in the film industry, it really could be any office in any city.
Much like the nondescript, fluorescent-lit hallways and offices, the film executive at the centre of this story is a blank unknown and thus becomes interchangeable with every other abuser in every other workplace.
During a press circuit for the film, Green explained her reasoning for not showing the film executive or his sexual abuse on screen.
She said: “Bad men have had enough screen time. We know what happens behind that closed door.”
There is a powerful emotional, psychological and political resonance to The Assistant because so many of us have been that assistant and, indeed, we all know what happens behind that closed door.
The Assistant is out on June 10